Twenty Shiny Steel Chains

You used to stare at Orion when you were lonely, or homesick, or back home and wishing to god that you weren’t. Orion who follows you all across the globe. There was a comfort in knowing you could see from your bedroom window what someone else could see from their bed in their city or a village or the dunes five thousand miles away. Astronomy’s a big thing in the desert – people showing off their childhood knowledge or their wit at inventing entirely new constellations. That’s Taurus. The plough. The Ifor Williams trailer. The spatchcocked albatross. Yesterday a tourist told you Orion’s left shoulder was dead … long since supernovaed. Some kind of time-travel, this looking at the stars.

Now you have a local ‘phone that you hold all evening in your palm as you sit around the staff campfire, the battery quietly overheating and the charging port filling up with this unmaritime bone-dry sand. It won’t buzz tonight because the only person who’s ever called the number sits two feet to your right. But it’s full of potential, this little candy-bar of a ‘phone. You feel like a child of six on one end of a string-and-tin-cans walkie-talkie; your best friend of the day at the far side of the field but linked to you by twenty yards of twine. You can bury your nose in the soup tin, mutter his name, or tug out a message in Morse code. Reel him in at a pinch. Well, it’s just like that. Holding the silent ‘phone in your palm you can feel the string pull taut. A vague whiff of Scotch Broth in your nostrils.

Four puppies, fastened chokingly tight to a nearby bush, in disgrace after trying to climb into bed with the tourists, plaintively whimper through the gloom. They were happy to see you again, though they can’t possibly remember you. You left the day their eyes first opened: the day their mother went walkabout and you thought they’d be dead by dawn. ‘So you’ve been here before?’ asked the other volunteers as you swung your backpack down from the roof of the jeep. ‘How long are you staying? Sorry, *how* long?’ And yeah, fair enough … it is too long. A week should be more than sufficient. You can see this mirage of a town in one long dolly-shot from the top of the fort. Where the sandstone peters out into dust. The turbines all at ease on the horizon. Some of these kids (you’ve a decade on all of them) are on round-the-world tickets, scornful of your inability to break free of this one country. But there are semi-residents of this town who seem tethered even faster than you are: taking degrees here, quitting their jobs back home, buying shares in desert camps and informally marrying locals. You don’t know what to say to these people either. If you’re sick with envy or with fear.

‘Well, they asked me to visit again,’ you tell the other volunteers, like it’s all about repaying social etiquette. Maybe it is.

(‘You’re back!’ says the owner of the paan shop on the corner. ‘Remember me?’ asks the guy who sells the camel leather bags that you reckon are probably made of goatskin. Casually dismissing the expiry date on your visa, the lassi-man predicts you’ll stay another two months. Maybe three. ‘We call you topiwali,’ says a man you don’t know, and he hands you a garland of marigolds. You don’t know who ‘we’ are either. You don’t even wear a hat all that often.)

The boss’s left elbow, heavy with rum, rests on your right knee. You shift your weight a little, trying to keep the blood flowing. You contemplate shoving his elbow into the sand. Then you remember the bus ride from City Road to Muswell Hill not quite five months ago, your passport in your breast pocket, your third Indian visa freshly minted. You were crammed into the back left corner of the top deck, the intrusive but vaguely apologetic elbow of a total stranger pressed firmly into your ribcage. You recall the sudden breeze when he left you at Archway station. You hadn’t been touched in months.

A sudden change in the wind direction throws a fistful of sand and a blast of tuneless electronic thudding into your face. The tented camps at Sam Sand Dunes. This is the ‘non-touristic’ route, and you’re supposed to be out of earshot. You turn from it as you would from the threat of a slap. The tourists, sitting around a separate campfire, tediously high on bhang cookies, sway to their feet to chase their scattered Uno cards and ask where the noise is coming from. ‘Village marriage,’ says the boss. A practised lie. ‘Lot of people going to jail these days.’ The bhang-addled tourists laugh. Everything’s hilarious this evening.

The boss was married at twelve. His wife has four children. He thinks one of them might be his.

The wind shifts again, and in the lull you hear one of your countless new nicknames tossed between the lips of two camel guides. The less-than-splendid isolation of the monoglot – a little beacon of coherence in an incomprehensible sea of Marwari. Guman and Ali glance across the embers to see if you’ve understood, but you don’t look up. Eyes down, you feed more numbers into your ‘phone, as many as you can remember. People on the other side of the world you’ve no reason to contact. Just friends you can hold in your fist. It wasn’t unkind, whatever they said; it just wasn’t meant for you.

You turn to your left and peer into the scrubland where Soliya, a child of maybe twelve (fifteen if the tourists ask), cavorts among the hobbled legs of the snorting camels. He’s easy to spot as he’s wearing your new headtorch around his neck, on the highest, most battery-draining setting. The boss follows your gaze and tuts. The camels are all in heat, he says, and the boy is showing off too much. You nod. You did wonder why they were so troublesome today. You rode a peculiarly feisty one: some kind of wannabe dressage camel that wanted only to trot sideways. And you led an unusually recalcitrant one who wanted only to walk backwards. At least that one acted as a brake on the weird antics of your mount. You’ve a rope-patterned bruise across your thigh.

Soliya’s in his shirt sleeves in the bitter desert night. He dodges a kick. It chills you just to look at him.

‘Soliya,’ you shout. ‘Jacket.’

‘No jacket,’ says Soliya. He does have a jacket, but it’s tied around the neck of his camel, Lallu.

Shaking your head, you lever yourself to your feet with the aid of the boss’s shoulder. His thumb and forefinger briefly encircle your ankle. Freeing yourself, you wander over to the windbreak of broom bushes in a hollow of the dunes, to inspect the pair of mattresses and the burr-filled blankets set up a little distance … a prudent kind of a distance … away from the tourists and the guides. You’ll sleep here tonight, quite soundly as it goes, but with the ‘phone cradled in the hollow of your throat. You shiver again and stand flamingo-style to pick a thorn from the sole of your foot. The chewing camels sound like ticking clocks. The tourists laugh at nothing. Orion hovers above you.

And you’ll dream all night about the pre-pubescent padlock seller on platform nine at Delhi Junction. The snail-trails tracking through the dust between her nostrils and her chin. You watched her trawl the length of a sleeper coach, an infant brother balanced on one hip, and all the faces either turned from her or glared through her like she was a ghost when she peered in through the barred, glassless windows; starry-eyed, like even that grubby roach-infested carriage was another world. ‘Padlock, sir, padlock,’ she chanted in a monotone as the baby balled her ragged kurta in its fist. Twenty shiny steel chains dripping from her shoulders.

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The Parrot

‘I’m Arun.’

‘Hi, Arun. I’m Carol.’


‘That’s right.’

Arun knelt and guided her boot into the stirrup. Carol turned to the younger child.

‘My brother. His name’s Harish.’

‘How do, Harish?’

Harish looked through her, swinging his shoulders from side to side and tugging at his parched lower lip.

‘He doesn’t speak English.’ Arun looped the reins over Carol’s head and strolled out of view. ‘Lean back.’

Arun vaulted and landed behind her with a thud and a bark. The camel swore and see-sawed off the ground. Carol straightened in panic the moment the front end came up, pitching towards the neck with a stifled squeal. Arun caught her idly with an arm around the ribs.

‘Okay,’ he said. ‘No problem.’

Carol held her breath for half a minute. Harish watched appreciatively until the air came out in a strangled wheeze, then trotted away to perch behind his father. He was too young for a tourist of his own.


The bony boy at her back was making small talk. Carol nodded spasmodically, grunted occasional meaningless assent. Her eardrums were singing with fear; Arun sounded like Radio 4 filtered through seven feet of heavily chlorinated water. At least she wasn’t alone: James, riding alongside her, laughed as he drunkenly rolled, nervous at the ridiculous riding height, belching with semi-feigned sea-sickness. Only Simon up front was sitting easy, waving at the bullock carts and the decorated tour buses; roaring out loud at the good luck message on the bumper of the overturned truck. Carol saw that when for five long seconds she dared to open her eyes.

‘Lady?’ said Arun.

‘Hm?’ said Carol.

‘You like to go fast?’

‘No,’ said Carol.

‘Oh,’ said Arun.

Two miles in and the shimmering slick of road petered out into nothing. The camels softly thudded into the sand. Slowly the rumbling traffic noises died back; peacock cries and cowbells drifted in on the breeze. When the train passed close by a tiny earth-coloured village, a swarm of barefoot children flooded out to meet them.

Carol swallowed hard, raised her heels from their outstretched hands and focused on the space between her camel’s ears.

It was a flock of knocked-kneed lambs tottering past three hours into the journey that brought Carol’s voice back to her in a long drawn-out ‘awww’, and she unwound her hands from the smutty rags knotted around the saddle horn just long enough to throw a quick ‘namaste’ to the shepherd. She hadn’t fallen; it made her swell with sudden pride and feverish pluck. She followed the man and the beasts over the ridge, twisting as far as she dared, till she could see the kid again. He smiled at her. She smiled back.

‘Nice weather,’ said Arun.

‘Yes,’ said Carol. She studied his face. His half-smiling mouth. His barely blinking eyes. ‘How old are you, Arun?’ she said.

The boy shrugged. ‘How old do you think?’

‘Oh … I really don’t know.’

‘I’m fifteen.’

Carol nodded. Arun knew full well she didn’t believe him. He looked about twelve. He kicked the camel on to a trot. Carol bounced a little in the saddle and rested her palms flat on the bristly shoulders.

‘What’s the camel called?’

‘Raja. He’s a racing camel.’

Carol tensed up. Arun tugged Raja back to a walk.

‘I race him next week at the festival. When he wins, I buy another camel.’

‘Is he your own camel then?’

‘My own camel. My father … when I was eleven he asked me do I want to go to school or have my own camel and do the safari. He asks Harish soon. You like to trot?’


‘It’s more fun.’

‘Well … maybe for a bit,’ said Carol, twisting her hands deep into the rags again. ‘Arun … can you read?’


‘You’ve never been to school?’


‘So how come you speak such good English?’

Arun shrugged. ‘I talk to people,’ he said.

They were way out in front now. Some of the camel drivers had struck up a song far behind them. Arun joined in, bellowing to make himself heard. Carol couldn’t sense anything terribly melodic in it, but tried to hum along all the same, her voice rising and falling in all the wrong places as she shuddered in the saddle.

Arun broke off sharply mid-song and tapped his charge on the shoulder.



‘I forgot your name.’

‘Oh … Carol.’


‘That’s right.’

Arun nodded and shook the reins. The desert rolled hypnotically away under Raja’s hooves. The others had slipped out of earshot, so Arun sang his own tune. The tack jangled. There was no other sound.


When the rest of the group pulled up at the watering hole a good ten minutes later, Carol limped up to Simon, who kept horses and had blagged a solo ride. She fixed a hasty camel-swap. Arun sniffed. Raja was always too forward-going for the beginners.

Simon was doing hamstring stretches and hacking great clouds of dust from his lungs. Arun hailed him.

‘You come on my camel?’

Simon shook his head and pulled a half-smile.

‘I’ve done my leg in. Your dad said I can walk.’

Arun shrugged and jumped back into the saddle. He couldn’t say he minded; at least he’d get the chance for a bit of a run.

Carol’s new camel strode purposefully into the middle of a healthy crop of cacti. Arun frowned and briefly contemplated wading in to help. Then he thought of the hearty gallop ahead of him. A mile of good flat desert, over the sand dunes and first man into the camp. He sat up and drew enough breath for a good loud cheer.


Arun let out the breath in a sigh from his heels. He turned and raised an eyebrow at his father.

‘Take Harish.’

Arun swore, clicked his tongue and spurred Raja into a moody trot.



‘I’m fed up with him. He talks too much.’

Arun laughed, nodded and swung towards them.

‘Come on then, chatterbox. Up here.’

Harish slithered off the back of his father’s camel and effortlessly scaled Raja, waving off Arun’s offered hand. His father trotted over to Carol, extracted her from the cacti and hitched her reins to the back of Raja’s saddle.

‘Watch her, will you? She shouldn’t be turned loose on the first day.’ And he loped away to pick up Simon, who was hirpling along a hundred yards in the rear of the train.

The roped camels ambled, playing an unwilling, less than entertaining game of tug-of-war: it wasn’t long before the bulk of the group disappeared over the horizon. As the last puff of dust from his father’s camel’s trailing hoof evaporated, Arun kicked Raja on to an experimental trot, reluctantly easing him back into a walk when the reins between his and Carol’s mount pulled taut. He spat into the sand. Harish followed suit.

‘Ask her if she’s okay back there.’

Harish yawned and turned in the saddle. He stared at Carol unblinkingly, but asked nothing. When he’d gazed long enough to make her smile out of sheer awkwardness, he untwisted himself and sank back into the sway, his arms limp at his sides, his chin tipped up and his eyes glassy. Arun felt the shift and craned over his shoulder.

‘She okay?’

Harish was counting wind turbines. There were seven, strung out unevenly along the horizon. They rested with one arm pointing downwards and the other two stretched up like wings. Harish thought there was a bit of a breeze, but maybe it was just because he was moving.


He put out a hand, palm forwards.


Raja and his ball and chain breasted the dunes ten minutes after the others and dropped heavily to the ground. Carol slid limply to her feet and tottered down to camp to join her fellows. Arun jumped from the saddle and sniffed approvingly.

‘Just tie him up for now. I’m going to gallop him,’ he said, and ran carelessly down the dune, making straight for the shade and the smell of the kitchen tent. Harish tethered Raja, briefly rubbed the animal’s dusty neck and followed his brother down the dune. The sand ran away beneath his boots and he put out his arms for balance.

At the base of the slope, a group of chefs, tourists and drivers had gathered. Harish found his feet, pocketed his hands and nudged his way into the heart of the crowd. One of the chefs lowered a wooden cage onto a camping stool: inside was a ruffled green parrot. Arun was pushing his fingers inside, trying to touch its feathers.

‘It was hurt,’ said Arun’s father. ‘Flew into the windscreen. He’s teaching it to talk.’

Arun whistled at it.

‘Slow learner,’ said his father.

‘Poor teacher,’ muttered Arun, and his father chuckled as he moved away to check the guy ropes. Harish sidled closer and pushed his head under Arun’s shoulder. Arun ran his knuckles back and forth across the bars.

‘Stupid bird. Say stupid bird.’

Harish pressed his cheek into Arun’s ribs. Arun slung an arm around the boy’s neck and tugged companionably for a moment before strolling to the trees where the camels were tethered, hands in his pockets, still whistling.

Harish stepped up to the cage; brought his face so close to the parrot’s that the bars indented his forehead. The bird cocked its head on one side, looked back for a long silent minute, then turned away.

Raja and Arun burst out of the setting sun and tore through the middle of the camp. The tourists heard Arun’s shrieks and whoops and shoved their sunburnt heads through the tent flaps. The chefs sat back on their heels and smiled. Carol glanced up from a jug of tepid water. Her jaw dropped. She hadn’t known the wretched things could move as fast as that.

‘The prize is as good as his,’ said Arun’s father, and tapped Harish on the back as he passed. ‘Come and see me in the kitchen tent. Five minutes. School or camels.’

Harish stared through the cage, his gaze tracking Arun across the dusky skyline. The parrot gazed back. It took a step forward and tapped the bars with its beak.

Harish opened his mouth and closed it again. The parrot whistled the same easy note over and over. Harish pursed his lips and breathed in.

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Like a mole that lives beneath Milton Keynes.

I’m popping out of the country for a month (my first trip abroad since 2004) and I’m not allowed to write ’cause I promised I wouldn’t in my visa application. I just nipped in to leave my Creative Output 2012 Review, which is short and unedifying. My resolution for the year was to write three new plays, which I utterly failed to do: the entire year was taken up with redrafting. Which is obviously 90% of the creative process and not to be sniffed it, but it’s not quite as rewarding as three shiny new first drafts. Also none of those redrafts have resulted in anything close to a final draft, if such a thing exists, Wilfred Owen. But that’s the way of things. I did write several short pieces (films and plays) and a radio play and many notes., and also there was some knitting. And just after Christmas I successfully completed a jigsaw of North Queensferry harbour. I’m proudest of the jigsaw.

My 2013 resolution is just, you know, to write. I need to find a job as well at some point, but I find ignoring that unhappy prospect makes me mellow. I’ve always thought it dreadfully unfair that the reward for job-seeking is a job.

I was going to say something about the difficulties of outgrowing the ’emerging’ stage of the playwriting trajectory, but I’ve got myself involved in an episode of Dad’s Army that features Benedict Cumberbatch’s father in the final scene, so I’ve turned it into an imagistic title instead. Goodo.

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You had hallucinations. And they were solid.

I’ve had a bit of a blogging failure over the past few months, or a writing productivity success if you want to be all bright side about it. Basically I’ve been focussing on draft seven of a play I’ve been working on since August 2010. I deleted all the card games from my laptop and procured some software that kills the internet for a duration of my choosing. I was going to write a blog about avoiding procrastination, but it felt a bit obvious punchline. Anyway, it’s finished. It was finished about a month ago, and then some kindly theatrical types organised a readthrough with a collection of actors. It was my third readthrough (my second on this particular play) and I’ve always found it a hugely valuable means of gathering feedback, however passive-aggressive my margin notes look in retrospect (‘APPARENTLY this section doesn’t make any sense whatsoever, APPARENTLY’). Also I mark every single laugh. Even laughs that might be stifled hiccups. My needs are few. And now I’ve a wealth of comments to work through, so I’ve celebrated the conclusion of draft seven in the traditional way, by opening a file called Draft Eight.

I’m also working on Draft Two of a different play, and Draft One of something that I’d rather like to resemble a screenplay, and casting around for topics for a radio play, and trying to work out what I want to be when I grow up. Everything’s fairly unsolicited at present, which, after a longlisting and Sixty-Six Books and two invites onto writers’ programmes, makes my career progression look a little circular. I must confess – without feeling entitled to anything – that I’m starting to feel what a long, long haul it is … the quest for a solid hallucination. (For people foolish enough not to have been around in the eighties, that’s a quotation from ‘Confidence and Paranoia’, an early episode of Red Dwarf in which Lister contracts some mutant variety of pneumonia and has hallucinations that become solid. In the forms of Lee Cornes and Craig Ferguson. It’s basically what I imagine it’s like to be a successful playwright. You have hallucinations, and they become solid.)

Good luck remembering what I was banging on about before I opened those brackets. Damned if I can.

Oh yes. The waiting, and the lack of dignity it provokes. I was reading the new Writers’ Guild leaflets the other day (here and here – very readable and informative and I want to say clarid, but apparently it isn’t a word), and my two main feelings were a) how useful it is to see all my rights laid out and how jolly to see the writer on an equal footing paywise and all that with other members of the company, that’s the way it should be, our work ought to be valued, etc, etc … and b) HELLO THEATRE WHATEVER, YOU CAN HAVE MY PLAY FOR FREE IF ONLY YOU’LL PUT IT ON. MAYBE I COULD PAY YOU. IT USED TO HAPPEN IN FORMULA ONE ALL THE TIME. REMEMBER TAKI INOUE? CAN I PAINT YOUR LOBBY?

I know the cure anyway. Tenacity. Writing better. I’ve cleared a space on my flash drive for draft nine.

(Best of luck, by the way, to anyone who’s attempting Nanowrimo this year. I did it twice, in 2005 and 2006, and the novel(la) I produced in 2006 ended up on the shortlist of the Long Barn Books First Novel competition. Then it was rejected by every UK publisher to whom I could be bothered to send it, but that’s not really the point. It’s a fabulous exercise in getting it on the page, especially for those of us inclined to over-edit en route. My main advice is to write ‘and’ a lot instead of using commas and to have your characters do an unrealistic amount of counting out loud. That way, 50,000 words is practically nothing.)

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But I’ve no spade to follow men like … oh wait, you can get them at B&Q.

I have a friend – we were colleagues at our little publishing company till more or less this time last year – who runs a gardening business, and when I was back in her neighbourhood last March I worked as her assistant on a sizeable project. In the evenings and on the weekends, and on very rainy days, I wrote. When I told people the pattern of my working life they generally said it sounded a good combo … physical work wakes up the brain … variety … all that stuff. It’s not quite as fabulous a combo as it sounds because sometimes I was so physically tired it sort of leached into my various lobes and made me more inclined to watch old episodes of Blockbusters than to write. But I am a massive lazybones, and it was a heavy job for a shortish person who mostly lives under a laptop. We lifted several square metres of lawn and carried it to the other side of the garden; we dug a trench in ghastly soil that was mostly builders’ rubble (the house was newly built) and planted thirty-five young leylandii in it; we laid out and pegged down what felt like nineteen acres of membrane (it clearly wasn’t) and spread bark chippings over the top of it; we built and dug out four raised vegetable beds; we drank so much tea. It was arduous work … plus I decided to compound my minor agonies by cycling to and from the site … but I really quite enjoyed it. I liked the sense of achievement, and the visibility of the achievement. I liked it when the burly six-foot tall man of the house poked his head through the back door and saw all five-foot-two of me carrying a shovelful of rocks across the lawn or mattocking myself knee-deep into the subsoil, and he quietly retreated. (Actually he carried about twenty bags of compost to the back of the house for us, but you know. Fiction.) We gardened our way through the summer of 2009 as well (‘Do you only have the one job?’ – Local Hero) and one day I cut down an actual tree with an actual saw and my own actual arms. A small dead brittle tree, but still. On the train home I wanted to shake total strangers by the shoulder and tell them I’d cut down a tree. With my arms.

It’s basically very satisfying. The gardening thing. It’s satisfying to dig a hole and turn in some compost and to scatter a handful of bonemeal and then to bung a sapling in it, to backfill, mallet in a stake, tie the pair together, water it in, hop on the bike, bimble off home. Job done. I mean, technically I suppose the thing might die, and if not there’s a fair bit of growing still to do (during one tea break we were talking about knitting and how we wished it were more like gardening – how jolly it’d be if you knitted yourself a hat and then, come spring, it sprouted new bobbles and tassles), so it’s not like utter completeness or anything, but, you know … I’ve pretty much done what I can. I don’t, for example, have to redraft the planting of the sapling and submit it for approval and have it rejected and then replant it again and ask some other member of the household what they think and finally have someone be impressed enough with the job … well, not the job, but the future promise augured by the job … not to pay me for the planting of the sapling or to open their garden to the public or anything but to invite me onto a sapling-planting course at the end of which I get to plant a whole new sapling that undergoes seventeen replantings before contracting some description of blight.

Hello. Guess who’s slightly mired in the redrafting process at present.

Over the past seven drafts I’ve jettisoned about half a dozen characters, set the thing in three different locations, read a whole biography of Thomas Chatterton before deciding it had nothing to do with the matter in hand and, earlier this week, thought of an entirely different story that’d get the same basic point across, only much, much better. And while people are interested in seeing the next draft, this is essentially on spec. I don’t know what the end result of my efforts’ll be … if it’ll ever make its way off the memory stick. No-one’s promised me anything. Nobody’s making me do this.

Mostly I wish plays reseeded themselves over the winter, like my forget-me-not epidemic. I wish they sprouted subplots in the spring.

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Where the nuts come from.

There was an article in Monday’s Guardian on the recessionary fondness for farce: ‘Farce is everywhere on stage – but why?‘ by Mark Lawson. It’s ’cause it taps into our inherent existential desperation, I think they concluded, and also ’cause it’s funny. I’m very fond of a well-done farce myself. I saw Charley’s Aunt at Cardiff’s New Theatre a few years back and it might’ve been the most entertaining evening of my entire life – and that’s not so much ’cause it taps into my inherent existential desperation and more because Stephen Tompkinson emptying a teapot into a bowler hat makes my breastbone ache with laughter. But I think the point about farce’s ability to be endlessly profound is hugely valid. It’s amazing what you can smuggle in under a laugh. I once read a letter from Kipling to a young wannabe writer fan for whom it was all about polemicising: Kipling reckoned you couldn’t be successfully didactic if your reader sensed what you were about. Obviously you have to forget about ‘If’. Unless ‘If’ is ironic. Who can say.

But yes. As Lawson says, ‘farce is sometimes viewed as inherently silly and flimsy’, which I think it largely isn’t. That’s my point. But that said … even if it ‘just’ makes you laugh like a drain … if you don’t come out of it feeling vastly educated or improved or what have you … is that so very awful? As if entertainment for its own sake’s a cheap end. I rather like to step out of the theatre on a laughter-induced endorphin high: I think that’s worth the price of the ticket.  Whenever I’ve been in any sort of a workshop and I’ve been asked to write down three things that theatre must do (it’s happened twice … I’m nearly sure), I’ll only ever write one word, and that’s ‘entertain’. Stuff this obligation lark. That’s all it’s promised to do, and if it can’t get that bit right … if it can’t even pull people back to their seats post-interval … it won’t get the chance to do a great deal else.

Also it’s so damnably hard. I’m in awe of a good comic writer. If I have to watch Bringing Up Baby or read a bit of Wodehouse, that’ll send me into a sort of writing coma of envy for at least three days. So basically I’m unashamed to say it’s one of my greatest ambitions to write a farce. A proper old fashioned one with half-a-dozen doors, a couple of vicars and at least one humorous misunderstanding involving trousers. I’m not even slightly ready yet: I can’t think of a greater writing challenge than a farce. If the whole writing-a-good-play thing is like climbing Snowdon … I mean, harder than Snowdon, obviously, ’cause I’ve been up Snowdon and I haven’t had a full-length play staged, but Everest’s clearly pushing it a bit … so if we say Snowdon for the time being, till I’ve researched my sub-Everest peaks … maybe Cho Oyu? Anyway. Writing-a-good-farce is climbing Snowdon via the Crib Goch arête. Please don’t judge me on this terribly analogy.

Another thing Mark Lawson was talking about, getting away from my own personal farce, was the appearance of farce in other media, such as ‘Skios by Michael Frayn, who, having conquered the genre theatrically with Noises Off, experiments with making physical comedy work on the page’. I haven’t really got a point to go with that. It just made me think of my favourite extract from Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat. My mother likes the bit when they run slap bang into the punt that houses the three fishing gentleman, and my brother’s fondest of the peaceful, full-bodied, round-chested dog that floats on its back past the skiff as the chaps pour their river-water tea away, but my pet favourite’s the stubborn tin of pineapple:

It cast a gloom over the boat, there being no mustard. We ate our beef in silence. Existence seemed hollow and uninteresting. We thought of the happy days of childhood, and sighed. We brightened up a bit, however, over the apple tart, and, when George drew out a tin of pineapple from the bottom of the hamper, and rolled it into the middle of the boat, we felt that life was worth living after all.

We are very fond of pineapple, all three of us. We looked at the picture on the tin; we thought of the juice. We smiled at one another, and Harris got a spoon ready.

Then we looked for the knife to open the tin with. We turned out everything in the hamper. We turned out the bags. We pulled up the boards at the bottom of the boat. We took everything out on to the bank and shook it. There was no tin-opener to be found.

Then Harris tried to open the tin with a pocket-knife, and broke the knife and cut himself badly; and George tried a pair of scissors, and the scissors flew up, and nearly put his eye out. While they were dressing their wounds, I tried to make a hole in the thing with the spiky end of the hitcher, and the hitcher slipped and jerked me out between the boat and the bank into two feet of muddy water, and the tin rolled over, uninjured, and broke a teacup.

Then we all got mad. We took that tin out on the bank, and Harris went up into a field and got a big sharp stone, and I went back into the boat and brought out the mast, and George held the tin and Harris held the sharp end of his stone against the top of it , and I took the mast and poised it high up in the air, and gathered up all my strength and brought it down.

It was George’s straw hat that saved his life that day.

I like that piece. I consider it a well-choreographed piece of a prose. The comic timing’s particularly epic: at my (abysmal) reading speed anyway, the flow from one little set-piece to the next (Harris’ breaking the knife, the scissors making a lunge for George’s eyeball etc) is spot-on. It runs through my mind’s eye at the mildly elevated pace of a mid-1890s comic short by the Lumière brothers. Lawson touches on this need for speed, quoting Sean Foley (currenty directing What the Butler Saw, and directed The Painkiller last year in Belfast): ‘Technically, farce is about taking away all the thinking time, not only from the characters but also from the audience. We never drop into a zone where things are being considered – they are just happening.’ That’ll be what spawns the breathless OH GOD HAVE MERCY ON MY DIAPHRAGM spasms of laughter. I’m a major fan of the comic song as well, and the best of the bunch … the headiest, at least … are those that, with out breaking the scansion, seem to cram an impossible number of syllables into each line. That Gilbert fellow knew what he was about.

But then I wonder – to lob in another example of farcical prose, or prosaic farce, or whatever – where Gerard Hoffnung’s recitation of ‘The Bricklayer’s Lament’ fits in. The event he narrates takes about three seconds to play out – I know, ’cause the Mythbusters tested it in their opening season – and it’s pure visual farce, but Hoffnung tells it at a tortuous pace. A hilariously tortuous pace.  It’s funny enough to witness (when you know the victim’s a retired crash-test dummy), but it’s ten times funnier to hear Hoffnung tell it, with that world-weary filter, the hindsight in his voice, the unlikely composure, pauses that’d have Pinter tapping his watch, and with every punchline stark and inevitable on the horizon.

So maybe a farcical novel’s my actual Crib Goch.  Hillary Step. One of those. Either way, as I said, it’s way beyond me at present. First I need to conquer the Llanberis Path of the playwriting three peaks challenge. I don’t think the steam train gets a look in.

Here’s a link to your Hoffnung.

Gerard Hoffnung: The Bricklayer’s Lament

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The canary in the coal mine.

I am not comparing writing to mining.

Last April I spent four days in the writing room at Cardiff’s Sherman Theatre. It was like a test run for the room. The whole building was recently refurbished and they’d not installed a writer yet, so I was basically some sort of canary (see, that’s what I meant, I’m not so awful). Also it was a massively valuable bit of experience for me. It ended in a hugely helpful read-through of my fresh draft – only the second time I’m heard my work out loud in the redrafting stage – and also, as I’m still working on the whole ‘time management’ thing, it forced me into better writing habits than I usually keep.

On the first day I kept a bit of a diary, before I properly knuckled down (it’s writing anyway; it totally counts). Have a butchers if you like. I apologise for the random capitalisation.

I’m writing this from the writers’ room at the Sherman Theatre, at nearly half-past ten (in the morning). It transpires that there’s NO INTERNET here. I discovered that with a mixture of relief (no distraction beyond the tennis balls, with which I might juggle later, and the bookcase full of playtexts, which I’m trying to ignore) and horror (NO INTERNET). But otherwise, here we are. I know how to find the loos. I have a thermos full of tea. Well, tea cocktail. I mixed rooibos and peppermint, for larks. Also I have a brie sandwich. Go me.

Bonus hovertext of boredom.

My little cell. My thermos. My fake window.

Hilariously, they’re teching Clytemnestra on the main stage and a few of the lines and most of the sound effects – ghoulish wailing mostly – are carrying loudly through the metal ducts (with some help from the speaker system) and blasting out into the room. So it sounds like I’m being periodically haunted. One of the actors is Jaye Griffiths and I can pick out her voice quite clearly. It’s the kind of background noise I enjoy. The repetition of the lines and the calls to rehearsal and the hurrying through the corridors. I can tell I’m in a theatre.

2.30pm. It’s going quite nicely. I’m undeniably getting more writing done than I would at home (though I don’t know if that’s the lack of distractions or the knowledge that I’ve been put here to write and they’re paying me to do so). On the down side, I’ve nearly run out of tea. I’m thinking of working till 4.30pm today, so I’ve another couple of hours to go. I just had two visitors who did give me their names and their occupations, and I instantly forgot because I’ve been introduced to about twenty new people today. The man came into my little room (or cell as he called it, which isn’t wholly undescriptive) and bounced a tennis ball against the wall for a bit. Then they left. They’re still lurking in the corridors somewhere, moving boxes.

I’m still finding a way to procrastinate, by the way: I’m putting off the hardest bits of the rewrite (namely a couple of entirely new scenes) in favour of the easier stuff. I’m quite pleased with the rate of progression though, and I’m relatively confident that I’ll have a new draft to present by the end of the week (possibly beforehand, though I don’t want to push my luck).

Over lunch I read part of a Victoria Wood play. I vaguely knew a couple of Victoria Wood plays existed, but I’d never encountered them before. She was asked to write a play in about 1980 or so, with no experience whatsoever, and she just … wrote one. It wasn’t even redrafted. Her dialogue is painfully brilliant. I’m going to try to read something much, much worse tomorrow.

I should write again now.

8pm. Done. I did leave at 4.30pm, when my eyes started to bleed. Well, water. I must remember to blink more. I’m pretty pleased with my day’s work. I’m really quite tired though, and a very different (and rather less wholesome) sort of tiredness to post-gardening fatigue. [Ed. I’d spent the previous two months working as an assistant to a gardener.] But yes, basically this seems to be a good thing for me, and I wonder if long-term I can translate it into a better working practice.

I continue to wonder if long-term I can translate it into a better working practice. At any rate, I left four days later with a brand new draft, and, for want of a guest book, I signed a breeze block on my way out. It’s quite hard to write on a breeze block. You learn something new every day.

And I didn’t spend too long alphabetising the playtexts.

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I shall call this One.

Afternoon. [Ed. It was afternoon when I started this post. It’s evening now. My dire attention span, let me introduce it to you.] My name’s Sam Burns and I’m endeavouring to be a playwright. I’ve decided to start keeping a blog about the process, or various aspects thereof … the solitary writing, the research, the muses, the fantasies, the occasional visits to an actual theatre and the endless games of Spider Solitaire. It’d be jolly, I thought, to have a record of the scribbling and the fumbling and the counting and the deleting and the hoping and the waiting, and the breaking off to watch Bargain Hunt, and the biscuits. Also I wondered if maybe publicly logging what I was doing would shame me into actually doing it. It might just mean I spend all my writing time updating my writing blog. I suspect it might also, in time, turn into a readily accessible document of my bitterness and neuroses. Anyway. I don’t know. ‘Should I start a writing blog?’ I said and ‘Yeah, why not, go on then’ they said, and essentially here we are.

A brief to moderate story of me. I’ve been having a bash at playwriting since March 2007.  I didn’t write as a child, save for the odd acrostic poem they’d force you to commit in standard four (‘P.O.L.L.U.T.I.O.N. P – Poor Mr Seagull, his head stuck in a cider can’ etc). I remember, at sixteen, studying Pride and Prejudice a year after the adaptation by Andrew Davies (who went to my comprehensive when it was still a grammar) and being vaguely fascinated by the whole notion of adaptation, which I suppose counts as my first creative stirrings. I thought one day I might like to adapt Adam Bede for the small screen. I haven’t yet. You probably noticed. But I did, at any rate, abandon my quarter-formed and secret plans to be a Formula One engineer and took a degree in English Literature.

One day, in a narratively disconnected fashion, I found a book in some library or other – Teach Yourself Screenwriting. I was a massive fan of The Bill (well?) and was still under the impression that they accepted unsolicited manuscripts from the general public, so I read the thing, wrote a few hour-long dramas, a sitcom pilot and two episodes of The Bill, found that the latter’s powers that be quit accepting unsolicited scripts some years previously and so took up prose. I wrote a few short stories, sent them to a few competitions and magazines, then had a crack at Nanowrimo two years running and came out of it with a couple of novellas, one of which was shortlisted in Susan Hill’s Long Barn Books First Novel Competition (I don’t think it exists anymore). The novellas remain unpublished, but that was my first bit of concrete objective affirmation, and I rather enjoyed it.

Not long after that I switched to playwriting. I’d a friend who was a keen playgoer, as was I when I had the chance, and she suggested I have a crack at writing a play. I don’t know why she thought it’d be a good fit, but from a writing point of view it looked plausible … I’d always struggled to proliferate characters and locations in my prose, which makes a novel kind of sparse and static, but cheers up a theatre’s accountacy bods no end. Plus, you know, other stuff … the paring down of it all, the immediacy, the dream of setting the work free into the hands of directors, dramaturgs, set designers, wig-makers … audiences … being one of those countless countrywide 7.30pm openings.

I wrote my first two plays in a year, and then I wrote a third. I sent them on the rounds of the new writing venues till one of them pleased my then local theatre, Sherman Cymru, enough for them to invite me onto a writing course. That resulted in my submitting a new full length play to the Sherman – Not the Worst Place, which, in early 2011, made it onto the shortlist of the Susan Smith Blackburn Award. It hadn’t been produced. Basically I went straight from ‘submission’ to ‘awards shortlists’, completely bypassing the ‘getting a play produced’ stage. It was faintly hilarious.

Since then I’ve been invited on and graduated from the Sherman’s Advanced Writers’ programme, read aloud a monologue for Paines Plough’s Come to Where I’m From project (never again – they were lovely and the project was great: it’s just the whole reading aloud to people using my own voice thing that upsets me), contributed one short play to Sixty-Six Books for the Bush (me and the archbish. of Canterbury – weird few months) and another to Agent 160 Presents Agent 160. I recently spent a week in the Sherman’s new writing room, working on a new draft of the play I submitted at the end of the Advanced Writers’ Programme. That’s the piece I’m currently working on. Otherwise, after a lively couple of years, I’m back to submitting work on spec, only with the invaluable help of far more contacts than I had four years ago. Though it does mean I need to buy a lot more paper. I’m barrelling on, mostly. I need to get an actual job fairly soon (I worked as an editor for a microscopic publishing company till last year, when half the team left and the whole concern became too microscopic to be seen with the naked eye), but we don’t talk about that overmuch.

And that’s about the size of it. I hope I don’t forget that this blog exists, and that I do actually update it from time to time, and that it proves to be some description of use to one or the other of us. It won’t be instructive. It’ll help me organise my thoughts. It’ll probably make you feel smug about how comparatively little time you spend playing Spider Solitaire.

Good morning. (It’s actually still evening. I just wanted to fabricate a narrative.)

PS. I’ve the attention span of a gnat, by the way, so if I do veer wildly off topic mid-post and start live blogging an episode of Dad’s Army, let me know.

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